Can Shakespeare rescue Syria's 'lost' generation?

A famous Syrian actor arrived at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan with a plan for helping kids who've missed years of school: Put on a play.

Jane Arraf
Syrian actor Nawar Boulboul with children from the Zaatari refugee camp rehearsing Hamlet and King Lear on Feb. 12, 2014. Boulboul has adapted the Shakespeare plays for children and with almost no support, is teaching 75 children in the region's biggest Syrian refugee camp to act.

Mehdi Amari leaps off the dirt floor to avoid a rival's sword with the grace of a seasoned actor.  

The sword is actually a broomstick and the stage a battered tent, but it doesn't dim the excitement among the young actors doing a quick rehearsal of a scene from "Hamlet" before being pushed out the door to the school they have promised to attend. 

Syrian actor and play director Nawar Boulboul showed up a few weeks ago with a dream of bringing Shakespeare to Zaatari, the biggest Syrian refugee camp – and of saving at least a few of the children being dubbed Syria's "lost generation." 

Mr. Boulboul, a Homs native who left for France after being blacklisted for participating in protests, has told the more than 75 children in the play that they must attend school to participate.

"We opened the door to the tent and they started to come," says Boulboul, best known for his roles in the popular Syrian television series Bab al Hara (The Neighborhood's Gate).  "A lot of these kids haven't gone to school from the beginning of the uprising three years ago until today. How will we deal with them when they go back to Syria if we wait to educate them?" 

With 90,000 inhabitants, Zaatari is now Jordan's fourth-biggest city, and children make up almost half the camp's population. The United Nations has been able to open only three schools in Zaatari, all of them on two shifts, and thousands of school-age children roam the streets.  

Inside the tent where Boulboul holds rehearsals, a green-eyed King Lear in sneakers rehearses shouting at the wind. Younger children mesmerized by the action take turns peering in through gaps in the tent. Outside the desert wind howls through Zaatari’s dirt streets, whipping the ropes securing the white tents and stirring up clouds of dust.

"The character is wonderful," says Majid Amari, a 7th-grader who plays King Lear. "I learned from Mr. Nuwar that acting is not an ordinary thing – it is something really wonderful and beautiful." 

Before King Lear, Majid took Taekwondo, music, and painting classes in the camp, but he didn't bother going to the overcrowded school almost a mile away. 

The camp has taken on an increasingly permanent look, with makeshift shops in corrugated metal shacks selling or renting almost everything, including wedding gowns. Most refugees have realized they won’t return to Syria anytime soon.   

"Welcome to our home, although it is not our home," says Majid's father Samir, offering cups of sweet, milky coffee in a courtyard between the trailers he has turned into a family compound. A blanket emblazoned with "gift of the Saudi government" covers the dirt floor.  

"There is no proper education here. This is destroying the children,”  says Samir Ameri, who was a farmer in Daraa.

According to UNICEF, only 45 percent of Syrian refugee children in Jordan are are enrolled in school, and across the region, the percentage drops to 34 percent. That is a sharp decline from before the war, when Syria had one of the best educational systems in the Arab world – 97 percent of primary-age children were enrolled in school, and literacy rates for both men and women topped 90 percent, above the regional average. 

Boulboul, who has adapted Shakespeare for children, has made the play happen largely on his own. He says that on the second day of rehearsals the aid organization that offered a tent for them to rehearse in took it back. He scrambled to locate another one. Sporadic private donations only occasionally pay for after-rehearsal snacks.  But the actor has turned a lack of support into lessons in self-reliance, making the main characters craft their crowns from paper and swords from wooden sticks. 

What he wants is attention from a world tired of hearing about the tragedy of Syria. He hopes to invite UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as well as movie and sports stars for the performance on World Theatre Day in March to help show a war-weary international community that these are kids like any other. 

"You read all sorts of things about them – that they're terrorists or Islamists," says Boulboul, choking up. "These kids are so great."

While the boys dash off to school from rehearsal, Wiam, who plays King Lear's youngest daughter Cordelia, smoothes her ruffled skirt and shuffles her scuffed black slippers in the dust. Her father doesn’t allow her or her sisters to go to school.

Wiam, a slender girl who covers her hair with a black and white scarf held by pink pins, has missed two years of school since she left in the fifth grade. A year ago, she and her family fled air strikes to walk the winding road into Jordan as refugees. Her father believes it’s too dangerous to send her across the camp to school. In a culture where women’s honor is family honor, many families won’t take the risk of allowing their girls to suffer sexual harassment or worse. 

"He won't change his mind for sure," she says about her father's decision. "They tried – my grandmother and grandfather and my mother. They said: 'It's a pity you're not letting the girls go to school. ' Even my cousins in Syria and Sweden, whenever they ask him, 'Are the girls studying?' He says, 'No, I don't want to send them to school.'"

Inside the family's spotless one-room trailer, her father tries to explain. "There were fights and even some of the boys were injured. That is why I cancelled the idea of school. I try to educate them at home."

In the rehearsal tent, Wiam brightens. Asked what she wants to do with her life, she says she wants to be an engineer. "An engineer or maybe an actress," she laughs. "Why not?"

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